The Seventeenth Sunday After Pentecost
Pathways to Believing
Rev. Margaret B. Gunness
!st Reading: Genesis 2: 18-24
Mark 10: 2-9
Gospel lesson is probably a very familiar one to most of us, but in re-reading
it this morning, I can't help but recall the first marriage celebration
I ever went to when I was finally old enough to have some sense of what
it meant. Needless to say, I was very excited. But what I hadn't counted
on were some of the customs that go along with such weddings these days.
First of all, I was entranced with the beauty of the service at the church
and thrilled to be invited to the reception as well ...to dance with my
Dad, to hear the toasts and the stories people told about the bride and
groom, and to watch them cut the wedding cake and then feed a bite to
each other! It was magical to me, and I began to dream about becoming
a bride myself someday. Now, someone had told me that there was a saying
that if you took a piece of wedding cake home and slept with it under
your pillow, you would dream of the man you would someday marry. So I
carefully wrapped a piece up in one of the little white paper napkins
with silver bells in the corner, and I took it home and very carefully
put it under my pillow, and fell asleep in great anticipation. And that
night I dreamed that I had become a nun!
Let me tell you a story, written by a Bishop Warren of the Lutheran Church.
It's the story of a missionary named John Paton who was serving in a country
overseas (he didn't say where it was), and while he was there, he undertook
the enormous task of translating the Bible into their native language
for the first time. But as he worked on this, he discovered that their
indigenous language apparently didn't have a word for our word "believe".
Now how can a person write a translation of the Bible without a word for
"believe"? He didn't quite know what to do until one day one
of the local people, a native of that land, came to see him and sat down,
exhausted, in the chair that was offered him. As the two men were talking,
the exhausted man stretched himself out full-length, pulling up another
chair to rest his feet and legs. And with a sigh of relief, he said, "How
good it is to lean my whole weight on these chairs". And immediately
John Paton knew that he had found the way to express the word believe:
to lean one's whole weight on the Word and the acts of God.
So from this perspective, let's look at the scripture readings appointed
for today. I think it's most significant that our Book of Common Prayer
recommends both of these lessons, from Genesis and from Mark's Gospel,
to be read in the marriage service. And probably because of that, they
are both widely known and often quoted. From Genesis: "It is not
good that the man should be alone", and from Mark's Gospel: "What
therefore God has joined together, let no one put asunder." These
have become foundational words for us, and not just in the commitment
of husband and wife, but also in the basic structuring of our life in
community. The impact of them is profound, effecting our relationships,
our community life, the begetting of children and the stability of successive
generations. Just think of it. What these words from scripture convey
has truly built a foundation that we can, indeed, lean our whole weight
on. And notice that the hymns that Thom Pavlechko, our Organist-Choirmaster,
has recommended for this morning seem to evoke the very essence of these
scriptures at a level deep in our souls and our emotions, an essence that
we can't always understand with our minds.
However, recognizing the history and the familiarity we have with these
readings, I want to invite us to look at them and at their impact in another
way. And in doing this, I think we'll be led to see some things that we'd
perhaps rather not see, and that is that they don't apply to everyone
in our society, and that in fact they bring forth strong sentiments of
exclusion, of failure, of brokeness, even of the sinfulness within us.
These are all feelings that drive people away from the church, and I don't
think that's what God desires!
Look, for example, at the average divorce rate in this country over the
past decade. It tended to hover at around 50 percent. So how do you think
the readings today impact those 50 percent? Or what about the number of
people living together in faithful, committed relationships but outside
the bonds of marriage? Or people living in relationships which are slowly
destroying them as well as others whose lives they touch, what about them?
Do you think they'll feel at home in a church where they seem to be judged
or condemned? So how, then, do we, ordinary people who are striving to
live faithful Christian lives, how can we be reconciled with what is given
to us in these readings from scripture and in the traditions they have
established? What then do we do with the undeniable realities of our human
lives? How can we even begin to "lean our whole weight" on God's
grace and God's acceptance, when so many of our relationships may seem
to be "missing the mark" of the teaching of the scriptures?
Let's try to find a place for beginning. Let's look for a minute at one
of the basic tenets, if you will, one of the basic understandings of our
Anglican tradition which is affectionately called the "Three-Legged
Stool of Anglicanism" - scripture, tradition and experience.
First of all, Scripture - the Biblical recording of the great acts of
God in history - beginning with the miracle of creation, the naming of
Israel as God's chosen people, the wisdom of the prophets, the definitive
revelation of God in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and finally,
the birth of the Church, living still today, right here and right now,
in this place and in this time. Reading and studying the great stories
and proclamations of the Bible, it's not hard to recognize that the Scriptures
certainly do provide the basic foundation for a faith that we can "lean
our whole weight on."
Tradition, which I would call the continuing, living testimony of faith
within the Christian Church. It includes the creeds, the catechism, the
sacraments, the music and worship of the church. I would say that by its
very nature and purpose, the Christian tradition has two primary responsibilities:
first, its roots must be firmly rooted in scripture: second, and equally
important, it's goal must be a consistent, dedicated search for truth.
But now let's turn to the third leg of this Anglican stool, and this is
the leg of experience or reason. I believe that this is the place where
our human experience -be it love or hate, acceptance or rejection, hope
or fear, overwhelming blessing or crushing tragedy, whatever it may be
- this is the place where our experience comes face to face with the redeeming
God of scripture and tradition. And whether we have been seeking it or
not, we have entered into the realm of the Holy Spirit. This is where
the vitality of faith resides. This is where God's self-revelation and
passionate desire for his people can be discovered anew. This is where
we can practically hear the voice which is calling us out loud , compelling
us to come and explore the living meaning of scripture, to seek out how
it has been interpreted and understood through the developing tradition
of the ages and how it is guiding us into the future even now. I don't
believe that the Spirit comes to us in a pipeline from the past. I believe
that it stands before us, beckoning us to come and enter into the future.
And for this reason, it has been said that "The doctrine of the Holy
Spirit is the
most dangerous of the Church's doctrines."* I believe there's truth
in that, but dangerous or not, it is vitally important, because it is
this Spirit that is leading us to encounter the living God face to face.
I used to be in a parish where it was the custom that, following the Old
Testament or Epistle readings, the lector's concluding statement was not
"The word of the Lord" but "Hear what the Spirit is saying
to the Church." And then the congregation responded, "Thanks
be to God." It stunned me at first, but over time I found it to be
a compelling invitation to enter into the scriptures in a more energetic
way, and to think about them and wrestle with them and seek the deeper
truth they were inviting me to enter. In this regard, I'm struck that
the prayer which accompanies the blessing of water in the sacrament of
Baptism includes this phrase:
(these persons), O Lord, in your Holy Spirit. Give them an inquiring
and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit
to know and love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works."
giive them an inquiring and discerning heart - special gifts of the Spirit
- so that their faith may be vital and enduring.
let me go back now to the question that prompted this little lecture on
the Three Legged Stool of Anglicanism in the first place. "How",
I asked, "How can we 'lean our whole weight' on God's grace, on God's
acceptance of us, when so many of our relationships and so much of how
we live our lives seem to be missing the mark put forth in today's scriptures?"
Leaving the church surely isn't the answer. Dividing the church isn't
the answer. Adhering to some of the church's teachings and rejecting others
isn't the answer. So what are we to do? Well, I think we can start by
leaning the whole weight of our worn and weary bodies and souls on the
inviting strength of that three-legged stool of the church - scripture,
tradition and experience. For even though each one of those sturdy legs
is profoundly essential, only all three of them together can provide the
strength required to hold us up, to guide us and to console the lost and
searching human soul.
* From a
sermon by The Rev. John Snow given at St. John's Ashfield, MA 9/3/00
2000 Calvary Episcopal Church
Reading: Genesis 2:18-24
Then the LORD God said, "It is not good that the man should
be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner."
So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and
bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call
them; and whatever the man called every living creature, that was its
The man gave names to all cattle, and to the birds of the air, and to
every animal of the field; but for the man there was not found a helper
as his partner.
So the LORD God caused a deep sleep to fall upon the man, and he slept;
then he took one of his ribs and closed up its place with flesh. And
the rib that the LORD God had taken from the man he made into a woman
and brought her to the man.
Then the man said, "This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of
my flesh; this
one shall be called Woman, for out of Man this one was taken."
a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they
become one flesh. NRSV
Mark 10: 2-9
Some Pharisees came, and to test him they asked, "Is it lawful for
a man to divorce his wife?"
He answered them, "What did Moses command you?"
They said, "Moses allowed a man to write a certificate of dismissal
and to divorce her."
But Jesus said to them, "Because of your hardness of heart he wrote
commandment for you.
But from the beginning of creation, 'God made them male and female.'
'For this reason a man shall leave his father and mother and be joined
to his wife,
and the two shall become one flesh.' So they are no longer two, but one
Therefore what God has joined together, let no one separate." NRSV